Primary specialists have ‘negative impact’ on pupil results

Pupils who were taught by subject-specialists in English and maths saw their grades drop rather than improve, new research shows

Specialist primary teachers are 6 per cent less effective than their non-specialist colleagues, according to a Harvard University study.

Roland Fryer, faculty director of Harvard University’s Education Innovation Laboratory, conducted an experiment with 50 elementary schools in Houston, Texas. Schools adjusted their timetables to allow for specialist teaching in maths, science, social studies or reading. Specialist teachers saw pupils only for their allocated subjects.

However, rather than improving academic outcomes in these subjects, specialist teaching had a negative impact on pupils’ grades in maths and reading. The research found that the effect of such teachers went beyond just a drop in grades.

‘Behaviour problems increase’

“Teacher specialisation… decreases student achievement, decreases student attendance and increases student behavioural problems,” Professor Fryer wrote, in a paper published by the US National Bureau of Economic Research.

Two of education’s most influential academics have said that the findings were unexpected. Dylan Wiliam, emeritus professor at the UCL Institute of Education, tweeted in response: “OK – this was a surprise. Because students taught by teachers who were better at teaching maths did worse in maths.”

Becky Allen, director of Education Datalab, said that the new research highlighted the importance of the teacher-pupil relationship. That, in turn, raised “more general questions about [the wisdom of] teacher job shares” and setting by ability in infant schools, she added.

This is an edited version of an article in the 3 June edition of TES. Subscribers can read the full story here. To subscribe, click here. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here. You can also download the TES Reader app for Android or iOS. TES magazine is available at all good newsagents.

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